Walter Elgersma the OACS plaintiff in Adler versus Ontario case
Today Ontario’s independent schools receive provincial funding for a range of health services and Walter Elgersma can say he played a role in making that happen.
Walter was born with spina bifida, which has affected his mobility as well as other functions.
While his five siblings attended Calvin Christian School (CCS) in Hamilton, Walter initially went to a public school where he received government-funded health services, including catheterization.
When he was to enter Grade 2 his parents, Leo and Alice, decided to transfer him to CCS even though it meant they would have to take on all responsibility for his required nursing services. They had to travel about 27 kilometres during the school day to provide those services.
In 1992, when Walter was 15, the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS) and Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) took the provincial government to court.
Walter was the OACS plaintiff, Susan Adler the CJC plaintiff in the Adler versus Ontario case, which argued that students in independent schools were being treated as second-class citizens because they lost services they were otherwise entitled to, even non-educational services.
Leo says while the family didn’t particularly enjoy the limelight they agreed to get involved because they believed in the cause and hoped they could somehow contribute to making a difference for other children with disabilities who attend independent schools.
“We didn’t think we were doing it for Wally as much as for all the ones coming down the road who would be coming to the school and needing the health services of various kinds and not getting it at the Christian school,” says Leo. “So we did it not just for ourselves as much as we did it for other people.”
The case was appealed twice, leading to a Supreme Court decision in 1996. Adrian Guldemond, executive director, describes the court’s decision as a “good news bad news” scenario.
While the court ruled that parents have the right to select schools and there is no constitutional obstacle for provinces to fund independent schools, it would not “force” provincial governments to provide that funding.
On the positive side, the dissenting judges were prepared to rule that health funding for students with disabilities attending independent schools should be provided. As a result of that decision, in 1999 the provincial government introduced legislation to support the funding of personal support services, nursing services, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech therapy for students attending independent schools.
While Walter did not ultimately benefit from that decision, Leo says the family was thrilled to see the outcome.
“We think it’s wonderful,” he says, noting that, “kids go to a Christian school not because it’s about reading and writing and arithmetic but because it’s taught in the light of Christianity; everything is centred around that.”
When the family learned that other children who have certain disabilities can attend a Christian school and still receive the health services they need they felt good about it, according to Leo.
Walter was also aware of what had transpired and seemed pleased.
Guldemond says the OACS appreciated the Elgersma family’s willingness to become “lead exhibits” in the case.
Today at 31 Walter is a faithful volunteer at the same school he attended. He works in the school library 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. He says he enjoys the opportunity to “get out of the house for a while.”
While the Adler case had a prong of victory, independent school students who are blind, deaf or who have learning disabilities still today cannot receive government-funded services in Ontario.
June 26, 2007, a multi-faith coalition and eight families launched a lawsuit against the provincial government for violating the Charter rights of their children who have these disabilities and attend independent schools.
The case is still pending.
Guldemond says the OACS agrees that funded services should be provided for all students who have disabilities, regardless of the type of disability and where the students attend school.